Interview: Photographer Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe on travelling across Maharashtra to track the incredible lure and lore of Lavani

A new photo exhibition featuring the duality of the lives of Lavani dancers is set to open on January 13 at the Nine Fish Art Gallery during the Mumbai Gallery Weekend. We asked celebrated documentary photographer Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe about his experiences travelling with the Lavani dancing troupes across Maharashtra to create this pathbreaking collection of images.

At a recent event by the Directorate of Tourism, Government of Maharashtra, we witnessed the graceful dance of Lavani beingperformed by trained dancers. The performance certainly broke the common stereotypes of Lavani being a lewd dance form.

Maharashtra, lavani, folk dance
The many moods of Lavani. Image: Sudharak Olwe.

Lavani is a performative tradition practiced by a certain set of communities across Maharashtra consisting of interactive gestures and songs that were traditionally noted for their biting socio-political satire. It was entertainment but also a social commentary made by famous troupes that travelled from place to place, garnering huge audiences. While in the past, the patrons were almost all-male, in today’s times, with Lavani being slowly recognised as an art form, performances are also attended by all genders at high-end venues.

Olwe’s photography has always been that of empathy and social activism, be it his shots of exploited conservancy workers, or young victims of malnutrition across the country. His photographs of the Lavani dancers is a collection that has been put together over almost two decades as he has visited and revisited the troupes, capturing the artistes’ on-and-off stage lives meticulously. His is a deeply poignant perspective on the lives of this fringe community struggling to survive in this postmodern world.

Excerpts from our interview…

Sudharak olwe, photographer, maharashtra
Photojournalist Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe often picks themes in a bid to highlight the need for positive change.

Which areas did you travel to shoot this photo series? How many days did you spend? What conditions did you face?

I travelled extensively across the remote regions and cities of western Maharashtra to document the lives of Lavani traditional folk artists over the span of 20 years. Cities and towns like Solapur, Modnimb, Jamkhed, Pandharpur, Themburni, Chaufula, Satara, Supa, Sinnar, Nandgaon, Kolhapur, Nagar, Pune, Sanaswadi, Islampur are long known for this traditional folk art. These regions are home to several Lavani troupes who perform Sangeet and Dholak Baris in theatres especially built for these artists. The photo series was a result of visiting these artists time and again in these cities.

Since these are remote regions of Maharashtra, accommodation has been a bit of a hurdle. Rural regions are not entirely equipped with good roads and sufficient lodging for travellers. However, the conditions are changing for the better. Travelling to these regions has become more accessible today due to development and technological advancements.

Please share one sight that stayed in your mind and that you associate with this part of Maharashtra.

I remember marvelling at the vast expanse of sugarcane fields during several of these visits. Although some parts of western Maharashtra are dotted with dry terrain, you would also find lush green forests and rich wildlife, especially near the western ghats. I saw some breathtaking views during my visits to these regions.

Maharashtra, lavani, folk dance
Vast expanses of sugarcane growing until the horizon. Image: Tridsanu Thopet.

What did you discover about the lives of the travelling Lavani troupes while shooting them? What were their trials and triumphs?

The lives of these artists are devoted to their folk art, to their audience, and to the stage. These folk artists mostly belong to the Kolhati community. Lavani is a part of Tamasha — a folk art of Maharashtra, where the artists sing, dance, and enact in a very suggestive format. The men in the group play instruments like the dholki, tabla or harmonium to accompany the erotic numbers. 

Maharashtra, lavani, folk dance
A typical Lavani troupe has female dancers and male musicians accompanying them. Image: Sudharak Olwe.

Speaking of triumphs, when a Lavani dancer appears on stage with ghungroos, draped in an ornate Paithani sari, adorned in flowers and make-up, the enthusiasm sweeping the auditorium is palpable. Clients offer money and urge her to sing and dance to their favourite songs. Each troupe enthralls the audience for over 45 minutes on stage.

The dancers, with their made-up faces, flowers in their hair and elaborate jewellery, appear like celestial beings to the all-male audience. They are the stars of the evening, performing the Lavani dance form that has been part of Maharashtra’s tradition for over three centuries, enjoying the patronage of powerful rulers. These artists thrive on their folk art. With Sangeet bari, there is a certain amount of secrecy as well, especially with white-collared people. These audiences enjoy the performances; however, their appreciation is limited to the closed theatres and private baithaks. 

Although the performances are electrifying with powerful poetry and dance on stage, their behind-the-curtains story is quite difficult. It’s more of a struggle today to survive with this art. Earlier, the patrons used to respect the artists and their traditional folk art and music, however, in recent years, there’s been a steady decline in the popularity of the Lavani art form, mainly due to the satellite television invasion.

Today, the dance form is popular with uneducated, rural Maharashtrians and the condition of the women dancers who form the focal point of this art form is now abysmal. Their ghungroos are symbols of enslavement. The heavy layer of makeup hides the desolation beneath. The dancers, far from being cultural icons who practise a dying art form, are victims of poverty and exploitation. They bear the stigma of being ‘nautch girls’ and they know no other life than to dance their dance with destiny. It is a vicious circle that seems to go on turning. 

Maharashtra, lavani, folk dance
The ghungroos have become symbolic of their subjugation. This can change if more respect and recognition is afforded to the folk dance as an art form. Image: Sudharak Olwe.

How do the troupes travel? What sort of places do they live in?

Back in the day, a traditional Lavani troupe used to move from one village to another on bullock carts announcing their arrival during village fairs. Today, they travel in Jeeps. The troupes get to spend only a couple of months with their families, the rest of the year is spent earning their living at the theatres. 

Usually over 10 people comprising young girls, their mothers, and their younger siblings live in extreme proximity, huddled in a 10ft x 10ft room. Their valuables are neatly stacked in rows of shining metal boxes. Pictures of their favourite stars and goddesses bedeck the white-washed walls. The luxuries include colour televisions and stereos. There are 10 such rooms, each housing one group. All these groups share a common kitchen.

But theirs is an existence that’s far from the ordinary. They live a life of contradictions. On stage, they portray themselves as suggestive embodiments draped in glitter and glamour. However, their living conditions as mentioned above are not conducive for their wellbeing. Most of their earnings, at times, even more, is spent on their basic survival needs like food and shelter and most importantly their clothes and cosmetics.

Where can one go to watch an authentic Lavani performance?

Regular shows are performed across the cities of Mumbai, Pune, Solapur, Kolhapur. Enthusiasts can also visit Sangeet Bari theatres in Choufula, Pandharpur, Modbnimb and places mentioned previously. These performances are held every evening in these theatres with a minimal cost for tickets.

Good to know

Exhibition: ‘Lavani, a traditional dance of Maharashtra’ | Photographer: Padma Shri Sudharak Olwe | Curator: Gourmoni Das | Address: Nine Fish Art Gallery, The New Great Easter Mills, 25-29 Dr Ambedkar Road, Inside Salsette 27 Compound, Byculla East, Mumbai | Dates: January 13 to 18, 2023 | Timings: 10.30 am to 7.30 pm.

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